Best of Brazil and Iguacu Falls Extension Aug 10—23, 2008

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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Our 2008 Best of Brazil tour got off to a rousing start, beginning with our drive from Cuiabá to Poconé, and on to the Transpantaneira, a gravel road that provides a fabulous north-south transect of the northern Pantanal. Birds were everywhere, as they typically are, and we rubbernecked from giant Jabirus and Greater Rheas to smaller, but no less interesting cacholotes and woodcreepers. At one of our first real stops, we were treated to perched and flying Hyacinth Macaws, the largest and one of the most spectacular parrots in the world. A full-fledged cattle drive delayed our progress for a short time, and we ended the day at a marsh brimming with night-herons, limpkins, egrets, and Snail Kites. Not long after the sun had melted into a blazing liquid sunset, our headlight beams picked up an animal loping down the left side of the road right toward us. Crab-eating fox? No, too big. Maned wolf? It didn't look right. The combination of a moving vehicle and an animal coming head-on at the outer reaches of the headlight beam had us uncertain and off balance. But bus and animal were on a collision course, and soon it was obvious that the animal was a puma! My last view of it was looking down through the windshield and then losing it from view as it passed within a few feet of the left side of the bus, never once breaking stride. Talk about auspicious beginnings!

The next several days were a nonstop highlight reel. From Hyacinth Macaws at both lodges (including one mating pair that served as muse for an inspired poet in our ranks) to multiple Jabirus on nests, large, charismatic birds were everywhere: Bare-faced Curassows escorting downy chicks, Black-collared Hawks snatching fish from the river's surface, an elegant Agami Heron in the spotlight, more than 200 Maguari Storks in a single large marsh, and Toco Toucans with incandescent bills visiting the lodge feeders. And what of those snazzy White Woodpeckers and improbably coiffed Pale-crested Woodpeckers, or the wildly duetting pair of Black-capped Donacobius? Boat trips along the Rio Pixaím yielded a nonstop parade of kingfishers, including some exceptionally cooperative Green-and-rufous and American Pygmy kingfishers, whereas trips along the much larger Cuiabá River produced sandbars teeming with Large-billed Terns and Black Skimmers. Throw in large day roosts of impressive Nacunda Nighthawks; gallery forests with Red-billed Scythebills, Great Rufous Woodcreepers, and Helmeted Manakins; and a mammal list that included such prizes as giant otter, Brazilian tapir, marsh deer, Brazilian porcupine, herds of capybara (blockheads!), and troops of inquisitive brown capuchin monkeys, and you can see why our heads were spinning.

The bamboo-dominated cloud forests of Itatiaia provided a dramatic change from the hot, lowland savannas and marshes of the Pantanal. The lush, montane Atlantic forest here was home to a completely different set of birds, as colorful tanagers and skulking antbirds and foliage-gleaners replaced raucous parrots and kingfishers and lumbering waders. One thing that wasn't different was the sheer birdiness of the hotel grounds. We spent the better part of our first morning just birding off the balcony of the dining room, where seven species of hummingbirds, each more dazzling than the one that preceded it, swarmed like bees around the feeders. Fruit feeders attracted a variety of snazzy birds, from electric Blue-naped Chlorophonias and Green-headed Tanagers to more subdued, but equally special Black-goggled Tanagers and Olive-green Tanagers. Over the next four days, our biggest challenge was simply to tear ourselves away from the feeders; something new was always turning up, from fearless bands of bizarre Saffron Toucanets to one incredibly confident brown capuchin monkey.

We were particularly fortunate to have timed our visit coincident with a major bamboo-seeding event. Brazil's Atlantic Forest harbors the greatest diversity of bamboo species and genera in the world. Many of these species take ten or more years to fully mature, before going to seed and dying. When large stands of a particular bamboo seed simultaneously, they provide a tremendous food resource for a number of nomadic birds that specialize in feeding on their seeds. When conditions are right, these birds may descend on an area in large numbers, set up territories, and breed explosively. When the resource is depleted and the bamboo has died, these same birds disappear and may not be seen again in the same area for years. It was apparent from our arrival that we had lucked into just such an event. Uniform Finches and Buffy-fronted Seedeaters were everywhere, and were by far the most vocal species in the forest. Temminck's Seedeaters were present, although less conspicuous, and flocks of Double-collared Seedeaters were swarming around the hotel grounds.

Other highlights were numerous and varied: a male Black-and-gold Cotinga, the minstrel of mountains, pouring out his ethereal song as we watched through the scope; dazzling male Plovercrests swarming about a lek; good looks at both Cryptic and Rufous-tailed antthrushes in the same morning; scoring White-bearded Antshrikes yet again (keeping alive our double-digit string of consecutive tours seeing this rare endemic); spotlighting a juvenile Tawny-browed Owl from the hotel driveway; taping in elusive Mouse-colored Tapaculos and Itatiaia Thistle-tails for point-blank views; a marvelously cooperative Black-capped Piprites bouncing overhead; dapper Bay-chested Warbling-Finches feeding at eye level and nearly too close to focus on; a male Frilled Coquette outshining every other bird at the feeders; the Blackish Rail that paraded around in beautiful light against that amazing alpine backdrop at the top of the Agulhas Negras Road; and scoring both forms of Red-eyed Thornbirds in the same marsh.

Along the way we enjoyed and overindulged in many excellent meals, knocked off our share of yummy ice cream, and introduced many group members to the joys of Brazil's national drink, the caipirinha. All too soon, it was time to bid farewell to Andy and half of the group, while the remainder of us continued on to Iguaçu Falls National Park. Far from being a postscript, the falls and the birding that we enjoyed in the surrounding forests were true highlights. Being based at the lovely Hotel Cataratas meant that we not only had the falls at our literal doorstep, but that we were able to enjoy the splendor and spectacle of the world's largest waterfalls as a near-private showing for a few hours before the park gates opened and let in the hordes of other tourists. Besides the sheer mesmerizing power of the falls, we marveled at the swarms of Great Dusky Swifts plunging recklessly into the teeth of the cataracts, and others that clung tenaciously to the slightest bit of mossy purchase behind the thundering walls of water.

The Poço Preto Road provided us with most of our birding highlights, from the rare Russet-winged Spadebill to the extremely localized Creamy-bellied Gnatcatcher. We managed excellent views of a Short-tailed Antthrush on a song perch, which gave us the hat trick for Southeast Brazil's three species of hard-to-see Chamaeza antthrushes. An impressive pair of whacking-big Robust Woodpeckers, a bobbing and bowing pair of responsive Spot-billed Toucanets, punk-rocker Blond-crested Woodpeckers, and a stunningly incandescent Band-tailed Manakin were among the many things that stood out. The bamboo was seeding here as well, and as was the case at Itatiaia, Uniform Finches were everywhere. Here, Temminck's Seedeaters replaced the Buffy-fronteds that were so prevalent at Itatiaia, and there was also a scattering of endemic Blackish-blue Seedeaters. But the most impressive opportunists to take advantage of the seeding event were not endemics or bamboo specialists at all. Near the part of the falls known as the Devil's Throat, huge flocks of White-eyed Parakeets were voraciously feeding on seeding bamboo, something I had not seen before. For all of this, my personal favorite experience of our visit to Iguaçu had to be the amazing Pavonine Cuckoo that scurried about on the ground, and ultimately froze on a low perch where it allowed us to approach to within arm's-length!

All in all, a great group of really fun folks enjoyed a lot of special birding and mammal-viewing experiences (with totals of 418 species of birds and 26 species of mammals!), fascinating countryside, spectacular scenery, and the warm hospitality for which the Brazilian people are justly famous. To top it all off, the weather was fabulous, with cloudless sunny skies throughout, and temperatures that were close to ideal at Itatiaia.  Andy and I hope to see you all again on future Brazil trips—there's a lot more to show you! 

Favorite birds of the main tour (as voted by the group):

1. Hyacinth Macaw
2. Frilled Coquette
3. Tie between Bare-faced Curassow, Plovercrest, Green-and-rufous Kingfisher, and Black-capped Donacobius

Favorite birds of the Iguaçu Extension (as voted by the group):

1. Robust Woodpecker
2. Pavonine Cuckoo
3. Great Dusky Swift